Back Row: Akira Nakada (that’s me), Andy Huang, Gus Huston, Wesley Wang, Aydin Turgut, Robert Shlyakhtenko, Eric Li, Emily Nguyen, Annie Wang, Evelyn Zhu Front Row: Vincent Baker, Jason Wang, Logan Wu, Luke Ye, Nastassja Matus, Eddy Tian
My year was filled with intensive schoolwork and a packed schedule so it felt good to be able to focus 100% on improving my chess. Receiving the invitation to come back to Saint Louis for my third U.S Chess School camp was a welcome end to a busy year. Remembering last year’s U.S Chess School and the learning experience that it was, I instantly started packing my bags for The Gateway City. IM Armen Ambartsoumian was our coach with guest lecturer Greg Shahade, and Aviv, along with organizing the camp, provided an intuition test. Coming to Saint Louis with my mom and little brother, Johji, it was nice to see all these familiar faces again.
Contrary to any other camp I have been to, this camp focused on some of the lesser taught yet very critical aspects of chess: Material Sacrifice and how to approach opening preparation. When I say material sacrifice, I don’t mean a sacrifice for immediate obvious compensation such as for a mating attack or for crushing initiative, I am talking more about long-term sacrifices. When you look at the top players’ games, many of them are decided by a difference in the evaluation of a sacrifice by the players. One example that we were shown during the lectures was this game: Carlsen-Aronian in which the black player sacrificed a pawn for compensation.
Here are a few more examples from the camp:
In my opinion, the difficulty of evaluating a sacrifice, especially when we don’t see a way to win back the material, stems in part from the fact that there is a misguided focus on hoarding material. Also, long-term sacrifices are not taught by coaches very often (if at all) when their students are kids. This means that long-term sacrifices are not included in the intuition (subconscious information) of the chess player, making it harder to pay attention to them during a game. I am happy to have learned this concept at the U.S Chess School as it is an important stepping stone for players at our level.
As your rating climbs higher and higher, you find that good calculation and strong positional play are simply not enough to compete in this computer filled world. Many people now memorize opening lines 40 moves deep on the computer and prepare devious traps that are almost impossible to spot without adequate knowledge of the position. So, while the opening may not be the most important part of the game, it is still a crucial part of the game for any ambitious player and it was the second major topic of this particular U.S Chess School.
The main advice Armen had to give on this subject was to be an active learner with openings, a concept I have read before in several books but never really paid any attention to. The essence of active learning is that you should work on your openings without being mesmerized by the engines first lines. You must analyze the different lines on your own, finding the strongest ideas for both sides through your own work. The occasional guidance of the computer is fine, but you have to question the computer’s lines: why does it say this position is better for white? What if I just take a pawn here? What is the winning plan? This questioning and self-analysis is key because you can remember your own analysis better than a computer’s, and you get a better sense of the overall type of position. One example that Armen gave us was of this very talented player who went to World Youth a while back. When preparing for a game, he would recite 30 move lines, but then in his game, his opponent deviated and played a logical, but not theoretical move early on: he had no idea what to do. When questioning while analyzing, you begin to understand the nuances and ideas of the position and why the most popular moves are played.
One opening that I think captures the importance of active learning is the King’s Indian, especially in some of the main lines.
In this sharp variation, white goes for an attack on the queenside while black tries to checkmate the white king. Here the main line continues with Rf7 and then later Bf8 Rg7 with h5 g4, but no one really plays this way. There are so many different viable attacking continuations and move orders that it is impossible to memorize all of them. That is why it is important to get a feel for the position and the viable options that you have, so you can apply your knowledge to any continuation, not just the main line.
The camp is not only intensive chess though. We are also given many opportunities to have fun, relax, and enjoy. In addition to the breaks in between lectures, we were also able to continue the tradition and play the blitz and bullet tournaments, one of the most exciting parts of camp. Since I only made it past the first round last year and the year before in the blitz, I was aiming for something higher, but sadly my hopes came to an end in the second round. I was playing Wesley Wang and got a decent position out of the opening, but later thought I had his rook trapped and made a ridiculous blunder.
After a couple crazy games with queen blunders and spectacular comebacks in time pressure, it came down to the final four: Annie Wang vs Andy Huang and Wesley vs Aydin (the classic duel). Andy won in a relatively quiet Slav while Aydin gained an advantage as black but failed to win the game.
There could not have been more tension in the room, it was the tiebreaker of the classic duel Aydin vs Wesley and with only 1 minute, I figured there was sure to be some exciting action and I couldn’t have been more right. There must have been around 15 huge blunders in that game, Wesley hanging a bishop on a7 set the tone. The position looked something like this:
Here Wesley played Ra8-d8???
Then after playing c5, Wesley managed to trap the bishop and win it back on a7. For a few seconds everything seemed to be going normal for high-level bullet, both players making useless but not losing moves, when Wesley then blundered his other bishop! This was generously followed by a rook, which, Aydin, being a gentleman, decided not to accept, then found hanging a couple moves later. In the end Aydin won the game and the final game was Andy vs Aydin. The game was a great technical game from Andy’s side and he won in an endgame after a couple blunders from Aydin.
All in all, it was a great experience for all of us.
Next on the fun side of the agenda was the intuition test. This year Aviv made us a particularly “easy” test, or so he said. While intuition tests are usually one move per puzzle, Aviv decided to switch it up and made some of the puzzles a series of moves. This new rule caused some complaints and controversy, with the opinion that some of the problems were not testing your intuition, but were testing your ability to calculate variations and that the extra moves were not necessary. Personally, I thought the test was great!
It is not every day that you see an entire museum dedicated to chess, at the World Chess Hall of Fame. Every year I love to come back and see the installations and beautiful artwork that people have done because they were connected to chess in some way. We had a blast playing with the action hero inspired boards, and hopefully some of the of the pieces’/characters’ wide range of powers will rub off on those of us who ventured forth to conquer.
Later that day, after visiting the WCHOF, some of us decided to cool off by the pool and play some blitz. US Chess camp is the best place for 24/7 chess.
The water was just right. Blitz was pretty great too!
As the US Chess camp was coming to an end, we realized that we still had to fit in the bullet tournament. After all, US Chess Camp would not be US Chess camp without the tournaments! Everyone was excited for the bullet tournament and began to strategize about getting positions where they could shuffle their pieces a lot. As the tournament progressed, it seemed as if it would be yet another case of the Aydin-Wesley showdown, but that was not to be! This time Jason Wang defeated blitz winner Andy and Aydin as well, while Robert pulled off some major upsets of his own, beating Annie, Wesley, and Jason in an intense final match! What an amazing run.
Robert smiling after his bullet victory!
Finally, after 5 amazing days of meeting new people, making new friends, and learning invaluable information, it was time to go home. We had one last bughouse run before campers started leaving for the airport, which is always the saddest time for me. I asked my mom if I could stay in St. Louis another day to soak in more of the chess environment there, but I had to go, and on the plane home, although I was not as excited as on my journey to St. Louis, I had such a feeling of joy and accomplishment that only the US Chess School brings. I want to thank Aviv, Greg, Armen, The St. Louis Chess Center, our main sponsor Dr. Jim Roberts, the other wonderful sponsors, and all of my fellow campers for giving me an opportunity of a lifetime, multiple times.